How to serve
Considered ‘the drink of the gods’ by the Japanese, nihonshu sake, a fermented Japanese alcoholic beverage, has become an important symbol of Japanese culture. Made from rice, water, ‘koji-kin’ (a mould which secretes enzymes) and yeast, sake is generally served during a meal.
Sake tasting – a combination of traditional and modern practices
Like red and white wine in France, nihonshu sake can be served in many different ways and at different temperatures, from chilled to very warm. There is a whole range of poetical vocabulary used to describe the numerous ways of serving nihonshu. Here are a few examples:
- 雪冷 Yuki-hié: ‘as cold as snow’ (5°C)
- 花冷 Hana-hié: ‘as cool as a flower’ (10°C)
- 鈴冷 Suzu-hié: ‘as cool as coolness’ (15°C)
- 日向燗 Hinata-kan: ‘heated by sunrays’ (30°C)
- 人肌燗 Hito-hada-kan: ‘heated to skin temperature’ (35°C)
- ぬる燗 Nuru-kan: heated-warm’ (40°C)
- 上燗 Jo-kan: ‘heated-quite hot’ (45°C)
- 熱燗 Atsu-kan: ‘heated-hot’ (50°C)
- 飛び切り燗 Tobikiri-kan: ‘heated-piping hot’ (55°C and above)
Generally, the finer the nihonshu sake, the more the rice grains have been polished and the more the sake deserves to be drunk chilled. Similarly, the more powerful the sake’s flavours, the less the grains have been polished and the sake can be drunk warm or even hot.
However, there are some exceptions: certain ginjos and dai-gingos have such powerful flavours, despite a high degree of polishing, that they can be drunk at higher than usual temperatures.
The alcohol content can also influence the way the sake is drunk: some nihonshu genshu sakes at 18% ABV are served on ice, like liqueurs and wine. Above all, it is a question of quality and taste.
Nihonshu sake is traditionally served in small ceramic, glass or metal cups. The main national competitions still use a variety of these cups: decorated with two concentric circles, the middles of which are painted blue so that the colour of the liquid can be better appreciated. However, it is becoming increasingly popular in some upmarket bars and restaurants to drink nihonshu sake in wine glasses.
In Japan there are more than a thousand breweries spread across the country, from north to south. The vast majority of the sake produced is drunk in Japan (about seven litres per person per year) and it is still difficult to find reputable brands outside of the country of origin. However, some high-quality sakes are beginning to be sold in France, a country recognized as producing and drinking some of the best alcoholic beverages in the world. Furthermore, a drop in local consumption has encouraged Japanese producers to export their best products and develop new markets.
There is now a French blog on nihonshu sake, and the best Japanese restaurants, as well as a few French establishments, serve some very good sakes. This trend has even reached wine-merchants and supermarkets: a growing number of them distribute exclusive nihonshu sakes, such as Artisan and Kyo. It is essential that consumers try find out more about sake by talking to professionals and encouraging them in their work: as with wine, increased availability is the result of customer interest in the product.